A Brief History of Musical Theater - Attention Berklee Online (2023)

The following information about musical theater is taken from the Berklee Online courseAnalysis of the theatrical scriptby David Valdes who is now applying.

Theater has always been about creating stories and images to evoke emotional experiences in the audience, whether for enlightenment, education, persuasion or entertainment. It is a living mirror of society that each viewer possesses individually. Your experience as a human influences your experience of playing in text or on stage. In this respect it is like any other literature: there is no subjectively "right" way to feel what you read and see.

But there is a way in which theater is the most distinctive literary genre: its full expression depends not only on the creator. While fiction or poetry are complete works of art when they reach the reader, the finished play text is only half the theatrical product. The theater was designed specifically for performances to live audiences. The big chunk on the site is literature; the great game on the stage is the theater.

It changes the equation for other genres in two ways: it's never the same gameplay twice, and it's inherently community-driven.

Musical Theater and Community

While I prefer to think of the plays in artistic rather than corporate terms, if literature is a product and audiences are consumers, theater is the only product that changes.Wheneverreaches consumers (often through consumers themselves). The size and composition of the audience, the conditions of the performance, the skill of those involved in the production - all these factors will shape the fate of the show, night after night. One evening, the audience can express their satisfaction with the performance; the next night, the same cast and crew can take on the proverbial crickets. stagingOne raisin in the sunat your school can make you cry, while a regional theater production puts you to sleep. Since theater is the only living genre, it will always be that way.

While this implies a lack of control over the final product that a novelist may have, it also highlights a second difference that is not final with other media: making theater necessarily promotes community. It's always been true.

Historical and global context

The earliest forms of drama in Africa were festival performances, often masked and incorporating dance, which introduced audiences to stories about ghosts and ancestors they already knew. In parts of West Africa, entire villages participated, blurring the line between performer and player. Hunting parties reenacted their kills, with spectators providing the rhythm and music. Similar dramatic rituals were common in the ancient Inca, Mayan and Aztec worlds of the Americas.

As old as theatrical expression is the incorporation of music into activities. Dig into the history of most cultures and you'll find that the use of music and instruments in shows is almost as old as the culture itself. Classical Indian musical theater dates back to at least 400 BC, and Chinese opera gained momentum in the 3rd century. Around the same time, during the Maya Classic period, festivals were celebrated with elaborate musical parades that dramatized the reigns of the current rulers, with performers often wearing headdresses that would drape costume designers fromGypsyembarrass.

Across Africa, performances depicting scenes from rural life and commemorating milestones (such as initiations or returning from a hunt) have included body adornment, props, music, pantomime, and dance for centuries, and perhaps longer. In North America, Native Americans and indigenous storytellers have always used drums and chants to share history, retell mythology, and celebrate cultural events.

Over time, certain patterns emerged in the European theater. Zarzuela in Spain, with alternating musical and dramatic scenes, emerged in the 1650s. Combining the operatic tradition with the popular music of the time, zarzuelas featured solos, duets and choir numbers as well as incorporating dance. Zarzuelas spread from Europe to South America and beyond, with Cuba and the Philippines eventually adapting their own versions. To date, in Broadway musicals, the genetic code of the zarzuela can be easily recognized.

The rise of musical theater in the United States also showed other influences: operetta (in its use of songs to drive the narrative), vaudeville (in humor) and burlesque (with its costumes and spectacle). More controversially, early musical theater also borrowed racist practiceshomework shows, from blackface to character stereotypes. (The first eventually disappeared, but the second often remains.)

Today, musical theater is as diverse as it is global. Japan loves anime-based shows (e.gSera Myu, over 30 musicals based on Japanese mangaSailor Moon), and Brazil favors a local tour as in its ownLion King, which replaces Elton John's English songs with Brazilian songs composed by Gilberto Gil. Musicals came to life in the cinema (especially in India where Bollywood productions are hugely popular) and on television with the advent of live broadcasts of popular one-day shows.

Types of musicals

Currently, there are four main genres of musicals:

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Music books

Book-based musicals are musicals that incorporate a traditional story structure with songs interspersed with scenes featuring recurring characters (with "book" referring to unsung text). The book is a script, including dialogues and staging; when you add words, it is called a libretto. The result is music. Show me howViolet heartmiA song about a flower drumare examples of music books.

cabaret-style musicals

Cabaret-style musical theater is typically less plot-oriented and relies on a collage or pastiche of songs that are thematically or stylistically related to each other. long-termForbidden Broadwaythe series is cabaret, as are the song cyclesSongs for a New World. (Funny,Cabaret, contrary to the title, it is not.)

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sung musicals

Singing shows are entirely song-based, with little or no spoken text; the dialogue takes place in the text. Although relatively less common than book musicals, some of the most successful musicals of all time have used this format, includingGatosmiHamilton.

jukebox musicals

Jukebox musicals are programs that combine existing, well-known songs around a standard story structure. The genre really took off after its worldwide successof descendants(based on the ABBA song) in 1999.I can't get up today(based on a song by the Spanish band Mecano) had similar success in 2005, becoming the most watched Spanish-language play ever. Recently hosted BroadwayUpside downmiIrregular little pill, based on the music of Go-Go's and Alanis Morissette, respectively.

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Archetypal characters and characters in musicals

As with any convention, standard characters and devices are common in musicals. Nothing requires a musical to contain all or any specific elements, but here are the five most common musical numbers:


Played by an orchestra or ensemble before the action begins, the overture typically connects melodies and number snippets throughout the performance.

opening number

The opening number is sung introducing the protagonist or various characters in the context of their worlds when we first meet them, and usually includes the entire team at the end. This gives us a starting point from which the character will change - the baseline we need for the movement to occur.

The song "I want"

The song "I want" - usually sung by one of the characters - tells the audience what the character wants, values ​​or fears, something the other characters may not know, and it is this knowing that drives the story.

O"11 o'clock number".

The "number at 11 o'clock" occurs towards the end of the series, usually around what Gustav Freytag would call round two, when we see a character on the brink of failure or success assessing how much their journey has cost (or will). cost them. or what it means.

Watch this "Answer Me" video byteam visit(Itamar Moses with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, 2016). The musical makes an unusual choice of number at 11 o'clock: the music is given to even the smallest character, not one of the main characters, and this is the only moment in the play when the entire ensemble performs together, as opposed to being one character solo.


Ofinalbrings together the entire cast for an issue that covers the show's theme, sometimes resolving the action, sometimes showing moments after the dissolution, sometimes just celebrating the end of the show. Endings can continue during the bows, and some programs even save the ending at or after the bows.

Types of musical theater characters

The list of musical theater character allegories is as long as the list of musicals itself, but there are often ones likenaive(innocent who learns the ways of life), thebeautiful blow(which doesn't resist the game even if it breaks hearts), thebad girl/bad boy with a good heart(whom the protagonist dislikes and later falls in love with), thewise old man(which imparts wisdom to young lovers or social outcasts) andromantic contrast(which always comesso closegain an advantage over the other advantage with whom they end up).

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Wise Old Man Revisited: Peppermint, Broadway's First Trans Woman, Plays Pythia the Oracle in MusicalUpside down.

Musicals that defy expectations

Modern composers often use expected conventions to create surprises or new twists in the format. Changing a standard number, changing who sings a particular type of song, or omitting an expected element altogether can change how the audience perceives the narrative or comments on the convention itself. Michael R. JacksonStrange circuitwho won thePulitzer Prize for Drama 2020is a musical about writing a musical. The performance is based on the expectations of the viewers and its protagonist. by Stephen SondheimWe happily roll togetherruns backwards in time, ending with songs that can serve as opening numbers and the song "I want" in any other context.

Some creators change the balance (e.g. "play with music"James Joyce died), and others try to imitate naturalism by treating music as diegetic, most famously inOnce. Others were captivating, such asHere lies love, using David Byrne's music to tell the story of Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos while inviting its audience to join in the disco dance, protest and funeral.

Even working within a convention doesn't have to be restrictive. The mere manipulation of a subject can create a distinctive work that seems far awaykopyta i stukaczewhich some associate with musical theatre.Fun housewon a Tony Award with three people starring in a story about a lesbian woman trying to process the suicide of her gay father in hiding.We live in Cairotells the story of the Arab Spring in several languages, with its two acts divided into tones: the first is lively and electrifying when revolution is coming; the other is tragic and melancholy because its promises are not fulfilled. Both programs use familiar conventions, but feel completely new.

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From Mayan temples to 42nd Street, costumed performers have been incorporating music and movement into entertainment for thousands of years. The American musical form is known for familiar numbers and characters that audiences can expect, but around the world the form is constantly evolving. And that's what keeps people coming forward and attending these presentations.

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